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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought uncertainty about jobs and health for many Americans. Cassandra Long, a University Counseling Center staff clinician, said college students also face increased anxieties about paying for college, online courses and the increase in social isolation. She said a focus on holistic health is the key to managing this additional stress.
“When we do not take care of our mental health, it impacts our ability to cope with everyday life stressors and limits the contributions that we can make to our relationships and environment,” Long said. “In order for students to thrive during their collegiate experience, they need to focus on their holistic well-being, which includes an emphasis on their mental health.”
Pitt’s Mental Health Awareness Month officially began on Oct. 1 and will last throughout the month of October. MHAM consists of various virtual events — such as open mic nights, webinars and art exhibits — that aim to raise awareness for mental health, change the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses and remind students of resources around campus that can help them in their mental health journey.
MHAM was organized by the Student Government Board, the University Counseling Center and student mental health organizations such as the Pitt’s chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Active Minds. According to Student Affairs spokesperson Janine Fisher, MHAM has been formally celebrated at Pitt every year for at least the past decade. The events this year focus on mental health aspects surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 pandemic.
Danielle Floyd, the chair of the SGB wellness committee, said MHAM planners intentionally wanted to address the unprecedented challenges college students have faced from the pandemic and social justice movements.
“It would be tone-deaf to ignore how much these things are impacting our students,” Floyd, a sophomore economics major, said. “We have been placed under an extreme amount of stress due to the combination of the uncertainty of the pandemic and the need to keep up their grades.”
Jay Darr, the director of the University Counseling Center, said the pandemic’s uncertainty can bring up natural responses of fear and anxiety.
“It’s important to frame discussions about COVID and mental health around the concept that we’re having a common or normal response (e.g., fear, worry, irritability, decreased ability to concentrate, changes in appetite, sleep, substance use, etc.) to an abnormal situation,” Darr said in an email. “Further, it is well documented that the pandemic has exprobated preexisting barriers to accessing mental health care, especially for BIPOC communities.”
Graham Dore is the president of the Pitt branch of NAMI, an organization that aims to spread mental health literacy around campus for students and faculty. He said besides working to plan events, SGB leaders asked mental health club leaders for guidance on how to respectfully approach conversations about mental illnesses without feeding into the stigmas surrounding them.
According to Dore, a senior neuroscience and psychology major, about 90% of MHAM volunteers participated in stigma training, which included conversations on defining stigmas and how to have healthy and destigmatized discussions about mental illnesses.
Kamakashi Sharma is the president of Pitt’s chapter of Active Minds, an organization that works on addressing and destroying stigmas surrounding mental health. Sharma said organizers purposefully created MHAM events to address mental health within minority groups, as well as events to help students struggling with mental health amid the pandemic.
“We hope that through this month, the student body will be able to interact with discussions and webinars about mental health in these specific contexts,” Sharma, a junior neuroscience, psychology and French triple major, said. “As the main goal of Active Minds is to destroy the stigma around mental health, seeing the diverse events for MHAM is exciting, as the discussions around mental health will only expand from here.”
Isabel Dobbs, vice president of Active Minds, said the organization stands out with its focus on peer support.
“Active Minds specifically works through a peer-education model in which peers help to advocate and raise awareness to other peers,” Dobbs, a junior neuroscience and psychology double major, said. “During COVID, we have been lucky to move to a virtual model to meet as a club and discuss ideas, and we have also been working with other groups on campus to host events for MHAM and beyond.”
Active Minds has planned three webinars for MHAM. The first webinar, which occurred Thursday, discussed Active Mind’s “Validate, Appreciate, Refer” module. Sharma said the module is designed to help individuals in supporting a peer when they’re struggling with their mental health.
Active Minds will host its second event, “What is Therapy,” on Oct. 15 with the goal of educating students about the basics of therapy. The event will include a discussion of resources and the diverse scope of mental health care. Finally, the group will host a lineup of local mental health professionals speaking about how mental health is related to their career or experiences on Oct. 22.
For MHAM, Dore said NAMI created a virtual art exhibit, titled “Putting Mind Into Matter: An Art Exhibit on Mental Health and Creativity,” in conjunction with the Center for Creativity and the studio arts department. Students and faculty were asked to submit artwork expressing their mental health journey. According to Dore, they received about 20 pieces and will keep the submission period open through the month.
For those interested in learning about what Pitt is doing to support students during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, Floyd said she recommends attending the SGB town hall on Oct. 20. The town hall will feature Darr, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner, Dr. Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for health science and school of medicine dean, and Clyde Pickett, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion.
With all of the events offered this month, Dore said he encourages students to carve out time to attend events to take care of their mental health.
“Mental health is for everyone,” Dore said. “I know that sometimes, it can be hard to find a little bit of time to set aside an hour or two hours or something to do these — maybe you’re just not available. But, if you are available to attend any of them, I really recommend that.”